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Capoeira; Are They Fighting, Dancing or More?

A Look into the Fight vs Dance Dilemma through Capoeira’s Roots

capoeira dancing, capoeira fighting, capoeira is
capoeira dance or capoeira fight?

Capoeira Fighting

Is capoeira a form of fighting? The short answer is yes. For example, even as a beginner, one has to train to kick both with power and stability. Some are unique to capoeira such as the highly acrobatic kick, amazonas while others like the Martelo (roundhouse kick) or the Parafuso (tornado roundhouse kick) strongly resemble kicks you’ll find in other martial arts and are perhaps more powerful. Another large element of capoeira are the takedowns or Quedas. Whether it's something basic like the vingativa, a combination of the leg and the shoulder planting themselves on opposite ends of the opponent or the tesoura de costas, where both legs are literally thrown in a scissor-like formation at the opponent’s torso, the result can be just as devastating as the most harshest of any advanced judo takedown. So, yes; if you want to have basic skills of self-defense and the art intrigues you, then start learning. At the same time, there is a lot more to capoeira than self-defense. So then, what is capoeira? Why bother learning it? And what if I don’t like dancing?

My Introduction to Capoeira

I remember my first encounter with capoeira. I was enthralled, exhilarated. After witnessing my first live Roda (a circle of capoeiristas with two members “playing” in the center) outside on a street square, and struck by the energy, music, and dialogue; I was instantly hooked. After the circle ended, I approached the instructor or what I later learnt to call Mestre to find out more, and immediately signed myself up. For several months following, twice a week, I embraced myself for a difficult but rewarding new art. But as I started sharing my new interest with some of my friends, they were surprised.

Capoeira? You’re learning to dance? What will you do if someone comes and attacks you?

I couldn’t really answer them. There were definitely dance elements involved. There were also other nuances even beyond both dance and fight that I was beginning to pick up. Yet, I didn’t see that as a bad thing. And in fact, there is a reason for this.

Capoeira Dancing

First, a little bit about capoeira. As mentioned before, the game of capoeira is played within a circle of people called the Roda. There are several instruments that are played amidst the game, including the atabaque (conga drum), pandiero (tamberine) and the agogo (cowbell). These are all important elements to the music, yet the one that determines the pace and the tone of the game is by the birimbau; a bow-shaped, stringed instrument unique only to capoeira and held primarily by the Mestre. He or she also determines the song being sung. The structure of the song generally consists of a series of verses called out and then responded by the “choir” or those in the circle.

There are two players at a time in the Roda, engaged in a “movement dialogue.” The foundational movement, called the ginga mostly exists to keep the conversation intact and churning but depending on the style, the interaction consists more of benign leg sweeps and calisthenics between the players, allowing the conversation more flavor. The players at the same time are obliged to the rhythm and style asserted by the music being played. Looking at capoeira in this context alone, it could be very well understood why it may be perceived as a mere dance. Yet, there is a large element that comes into play within this innocent dialogue that immensely changes the dynamics; each player is given liberty within the movement to “interrupt” the conversation; from gently leaving an imprint on the opponent to full-fledgedly knocking him or her flat on the ground. So, the question still remains: Is capoeira a form of fighting or a form of dance? To really get a good answer, we will have to look into its roots.

Capoeira and its History in Fighting

Capoeira, as I am sure for many of the arts, has a complicated history. Moreso, an answer to the exact evolution of capoeira that makes it what it is today is unclear and may even be a point of tension. What does seem clear is that it began developing somewhere in the 16th century in Portugese-controlled Brazil, amongst Central and West African slaves struggling to hold onto their identity and survive. The story goes that in reaction to this crisis, a persecuted people faced with harsh conditions and striving for freedom developed a form of self-defense that portrayed itself to the outside as non-aggressive and more like a dance. Within the next few centuries, even after slavery was abolished, Capoeira got itself a name but was still endangered. At the time, authorities fearing revolt and crime, made the art or even a mention of its name, illegal. And so, constantly in pursuit to keep capoeira alive but not get caught or jailed, fighters continued embellishing it with music and entertainment so outsiders would feel less threatened, rarely witnessing the true power and aggression an expert capoeirista could unleash.

Capoeira as a Larger Identity

This is the story most heard on how capoeira and its fighting vs dancing style became what it is today. But there are also a major factor that sometimes get ignored that can give us a little bit more of an idea of its initial intention.

In essence, capoeira in its early age was also in many ways to create community; to provide for the slaves of different origins an identity of their own and a shared denominator amongst them, despite the variety of African languages and customs they brought from home. Here are some examples:

  • There are those who claim that capoeira evolved heavily from already existing customs in Africa. The most prominent influence among them, called N’golo, was a rite of passage in the form of dance with many cultural and spiritual undertones. On the one hand, these practices came handy as a form of revolt but also potentially molded to capoeira as a way to preserve old customs.

  • Gangs or maltas, using capoeira as a form of urban combat, developed as a crude form to establish territory within different groups of slaves and freedmen. Though they were not a direct threat to the authorities, it was a rebellious tactic to fight for their own civil order and affirm a group identity despite the unrest it caused the government at the time.

  • We cannot discuss the topic without bringing up quilombos, rural mini-states formed by rebel groups of escaped slaves and acting as a safe haven for other escapees. Here, we find that capoeira was indeed used as a form of fighting and self-defense as these communities were constantly under threat from the Portuguese authorities. But here we also see that the desire of those refugees ultimately were for self-determination and identity, not for the mere desire for violence.

By the 1930’s, the name capoeira was still illegal but its practice and performance was becoming more tolerated. It was also then that different masters began formally teaching and practicing different versions of capoeira, each with a strong incentive to keep the art alive but in very different ways. One version, Capoeira Angola, a slower more fluid version of the art but arguably as potent, tried to stick with the initial roots of capoeira though far less popular. In contrast, there was Capoeira Regional, a much faster and aggressive form with heavy influences of other fighting styles.

Capoeira as a Form of Expression, via Fighting and Dancing

In current times, Capoeira has international acclaim and recognition, is Brazil’s second to top sport and practiced by many other offshoots all over the world. And yet, it is still finding its meaning. Though the incentive behind the art was ultimately for battle, the undertones of community, freedom, ritual and beauty have made a comeback and it is rare to find circles nowadays where that doesn’t stand out. So it is dancing. It is fighting. But it is also a practice for like-minded people to have a unique dialogue, with ancient stories echoing in the background.

If you are looking to find fighting technique or just find a unique way to stay in shape, capoeira can provide that. But you can also engage in a dynamic art that holds a narrative, with an emphasis on community and ritual. Where capoeira will be in another 100 years from now, is up in the air but the capoeiristas of today are accepting the different influences and playing, nonetheless.

There are three ways the body reacts when faced with a threat. Fight, Flight or Freeze. A capoeirista reacts slightly differently; Fight, Flight or Freedom

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